Though Literary Stalker is primarily a psychological crime/horror novel about revenge, another important aspect is the metafictional dimension, the nested novels-within-novels and the self-conscious play with the different levels of the ‘real’ and ‘fictional’. When I mention a word like ‘metafiction’ I can almost hear the groans of some readers, expecting to get a lecture on highbrow postmodernist writing of the kind practised by Borges, Nabokov, John Barth, Doris Lessing and Martin Amis…to name but a few. Or on films by the likes of Fellini and Truffaut. Yes, all that self-referential deconstructionist stuff hardly conjures up a vision of a fluent entertaining read or watch, but still the principles of metafiction have filtered down into the mainstream somewhat, and have also reached works of popular culture.
One of the best examples in cinema is Wes Craven’s Scream and its sequels, where the characters are aware of real horror films and their plot devices, and use the knowledge to analyse what is happening around them, anticipating the likely pitfalls of being in a horror movie themselves. That tongue-in-cheek element and the accompanying layer of humour served to energise what was in fact a viable slasher movie plot in its own right, and audiences responded, joining in the nudge-wink game. In Scream 2, the awareness of it being a sequel was similarly used – everything must be bigger, better and more elaborate – adding to the self-referential fun, but by the third movie the jokes were wearing a bit thin.
Craven had explored metafilmic territory before in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, where the fictional parameters of the previous Freddy Krueger movies invade the ‘real world’ of this one. Nightmare actress Heather Langenkamp plays herself, and as signs of Freddy start to come out of the woodwork she visits Wes Craven himself, whose verdict isn’t reassuring, playing in postmodern fashion to that old franchise maxim: you can never kill a killer. New Nightmare and Scream’s meta-knowingness touched many films in the horror and associated genres from the late ’90s onwards, becoming almost de rigueur. Heather Langenkamp herself was involved in the 2012 self-referential horror film The Cabin in the Woods, and similar ideas crop up in Amityville: The Awakening, Seed of Chucky and Deadpool.
Moving on to metahorror in written form, a marvellous example is the first story in Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts. I include Joe as ‘himself’ in Literary Stalker, alluding to the time I met him at a convention in 2006, when he was just emerging onto the scene and I bought that collection and read that first story upstairs in my hotel room. ‘Best New Horror’ is flesh-creepingly brilliant in a way so many horror stories fail to be. A world-weary horror anthologist – who knows all the horror angles and tropes, as in the Scream series – tracks down the elusive writer of a bizarre, transgressive and ultra-violent story he wants to publish, and finds himself literally descending into a horror story himself – sucked in inexorably by his own fear. It is an outstanding, completely successful horror piece whilst being self-knowingly stereotypical, which is no mean feat. And that self-knowledge marks it out as ‘metahorror’ as much as the nested narratives – inner story and framing story.
And in the field of ‘metacrime’ fiction, there are many examples, including some from those highbrow writers I mentioned earlier. Take for example Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘Death and the Compass’ which involves a detective applying impeccable meta-reasoning to foretell the time and place of an impending murder – but he fails to grasp one important detail till too late: he is the actual victim! In The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, author ‘Cameron McCabe’ is himself is a character – and murder suspect – who uses layered texts, deconstruction and rug-pulling to further complicate the ‘real’ mystery – if there ever was such a thing. And Martin Amis’s London Fields features an unreliable narrator/author who creates a murder novel based on the ‘real-life’ efforts of the victim, who is apparently precognitive and aiding and abetting her own demise.
Many of these metafictional tropes influenced the writing of Literary Stalker, where unreliable narrator/author Nick Chatterton writes a novel in which his protagonist murders his real enemies according to the plots of famous crime/horror movies, copying the methods of Theatre of Blood. Therefore Nick’s novel is a projection of his wishes, a realisation of the revenge he desires in real life. And as the story progresses, the lines blur, fiction and reality interchange, as Nick is progressively ‘taken over’ by his own fictional ideation. Which is a very ‘horror’ idea, with elements of psychological aberration, but standing in for any classic ‘supernatural’ influence there is the intertextuality, acting as a plot device wild card.
So the games and tricks of metafiction – the self-conscious play with the different levels of ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ – synergise with the story and the psychology of the main character. There are many ‘nudge-wink’ moments throughout, and towards the end the undermining and rug-pulling gets stronger, till the twists at the climax which leave you wondering what exactly is ‘real’ and what isn’t. But I was careful not to take the confusion too far, because ultimately any work, no matter how innovative and experimental, must still stand up as a piece of valid storytelling. That’s one thing you must never pull the rug out from under!